CLEMSON — Life was difficult last year for the guys who first touch the football in Clemson’s electric offense.
Although injuries at quarterback, inexperience of the skill players and instability among the tackles and guards didn’t help, the centers played their own part in Clemson dropping off from its usual top-10 offensive perch to a paltry 61st in total yards.
Ryan Norton was supposed to be the anchor in 2014, after losing a tackle and a guard to the NFL (Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley) and other tackles to career-ending injuries (Gifford Timothy and Patrick DeStefano.) Norton was acknowledged as such on the preseason Rimington Award Watch List — even though, well, 55 others were too, comprising nearly half the centers in college football.
At the end of the year, Norton was probably one of the 56 best centers in college football, but that’s about the best that could be said. In particular, Norton committed one of the unspeakable errors that cost Clemson in Tallahassee, sailing a shotgun pitch from the goal line way over Deshaun Watson’s head. That turned what should have been seven points into none, when Ammon Lakip missed a midrange field-goal attempt.
Norton was never the same the rest of the year — social media threats directed at his Twitter account certainly didn’t help matters — and he’s now not even considered one of the top returning centers in the ACC, even as a senior with acumen.
It’s plausible Jay Guillermo might have taken Norton’s gig, if not for turf toe. Reid Webster, the Swiss Army knife of Clemson offensive linemen last year, also was tried out, but that was a short-term experiment.
Now as it stands, Guillermo’s status is still up in the air after sitting out all spring due to personal matters. Justin Falcinelli and Zach Giella have taken repetitions behind Norton, but their next college snap will be their first.
Ultimately, Clemson’s offense runs at such a breakneck pace — and allows Watson the freedom to read defenses on the fly — that the center mustn’t need to hold his blocks for long.
But Watson does need the ball to work his magic, and Norton simply needs to deliver it to him consistently for the Tigers to roam seamlessly once again.
Clemson Top 10:
Friday: No. 10 DT D.J. Reader
Saturday: No. 9 C Ryan Norton
Sunday: No. 8